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Southern Rail: Riverdance

By Robert Filla

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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus stated, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Of course that applies to most things in life and, to a rider, it has special significance when concerning the highway. During the last 12 years since coming on board with THUNDER PRESS I’ve ridden to the Black Hills rally 10 times from Texas. And never have two been the same river, never I the same man.

But unfortunately I will not be in attendance this year. Due to budget restrictions, a reduced staff will be covering the Sturgis rally for 2016 and I was not one of those selected. But I did make last year’s event, the 75th anniversary, which I suppose is an important milestone, a major benchmark. But it pales when compared to my first visit to South Dakota, back when that river was on a completely different course than today.

The year was 1983. I was a young pup in my late 20’s who had read way too many biker magazines and seen far too many B-grade biker flicks. And although I’d traveled cross-country before, never to the Mecca of bikerdom—the legendary Black Hills. So I quit my job, liquidated my bank account, strapped a sleeping bag and tent to the sissybar and headed north. It took almost two weeks to ride the 1,500 miles as I poked my head into anything even remotely interesting along the way, camping along back roads and under roadside picnic tables, swimming in every accessible creek, pond and river. Those explorations also included a visit to the cattle town of Dodge City, Kansas. My next stop in Dodge wouldn’t be until 2006, when once again I was on my way to Sturgis. And it wasn’t the same town, the rustic charm and gritty Western persona replaced with touristy exploitation, commercial glitter and glam. And it stunk a lot more than I remembered. Dodge had changed as had I.

When I got to the Black Hills in ’83, I set up house outside of Keystone in a mom-and-pop campground that a couple in Oklahoma had told me about. No reservations required in advance, just roll up and pick a cottonwood you wanna stretch out under for a week or so. Going into town for supplies, I stopped to grab a burger and a beer and sat down next to a local deputy who was also having lunch. We BS’d for a bit until we heard the hoots and hollers and saw a horse-drawn stagecoach coming down the street—all the windows filled with biker butts as the occupants treated Main Street to a multiple mooning. The deputy just shook his head and continued eating his lunch. Such shenanigans are no longer tolerated. The river changed.

The early 80’s were turbulent times for the rally with many calling for its termination. Although attendance was only around 50,000 (not the estimated one million of last year), many felt the event escalating out of control. Officials had just raised the fee to camp in the city park from $2 a night to $4, prompting a call for a boycott in an us-against-them revolt. While Main Street was still a major draw, as were the rides to Mount Rushmore, Iron Mountain, Needles Highway and the Badlands, there were no mega venues like the Broken Spoke or Full Throttle and even the Chip was in its infancy. No, we just mostly rode and hung out at the Fireside Lounge or Gunner’s and invented our own entertainment (a lot of it borderline illegal). But one of my most treasured memories of South Dakota has little to do with the actual rally.

It was my last day before heading out to Wyoming and then Colorado on my return ride to Texas. After checking out the bike and doing laundry at the campground, I noticed a huge thunderstorm brewing in the Black Hills. It was massive and immediately charged the air with electrical tension as for more than two hours I watched lightning jump from purple cloud to black cloud, mountain top to mountain peak, all to the symphony of a thunderous concert. Sipping on a flask while sitting under a collection of 100-year-old cottonwoods, I was treated to one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever witnessed and a true highlight of my first Sturgis.

I’ve never not enjoyed my many visits to Sturgis, the Black Hills and the rally—each one a different river, each time me wearing the boots of a different man. So if you’re going this year, be certain to submerge yourself in the experience—you will never step that way again.

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